Judith Light on Doing Her Stunts, Fighting Natasha Lyonne  

[This story contains spoilers from the fifth episode of Poker Face, “Time of the Monkey.”]

Irene Smothers and Joyce Harris finally brought Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson together.

The two screen and stage legends had admired each other for years, but they’d never crossed paths on a project. Not until they were cast as — wait for it — a pair of homicidal political radicals on Rian Johnson’s new Peacock series.

“The role came to me. They sent me the script,” Light tells   of landing the standout part of Irene Smothers, one-half of the murderous nursing home duo who star in “Time of the Monkey,” which released Feb. 2. “The agent said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding? Is that a question? Of course I want to do it. But I really want to make sure that it’s Epatha that I get to work with.’ That was really important to me. They were in talks with her, and I said, I really wanted to make sure that’s going to land. I’ve wanted to work with Epatha for forever.”

In the fifth episode of the murder mystery-of-the-week series starring Natasha Lyonne, the show’s fugitive protagonist Charlie Cale (Lyonne) finds herself working at a retirement home where she meets the feisty pair of Irene and Joyce (Merkerson). After introducing the show’s stand-alone structure with the first four episodes that dropped at launch (a murder is shown and then viewers backtrack to watch Charlie, a human lie detector, solve the episode’s crime), the howcatchem series bended its format with “Time of the Monkey.”

At first, Irene and Joyce’s meet-cute with Charlie plays out like a buddy comedy, with Charlie being taken by the women’s friendship, their history together as self-described “hippies of the revolution” and their entertaining, no-nonsense outlook on life. And director Lucky McKee witnessed the instant chemistry.

“It was the sweetest thing you ever saw, those two ladies meeting for the first time,” the horror director of Old Man, All Cheerleaders Die, May and more tells THR. “The first day Judith and Epatha met, they acted like they had been friends forever. They were almost like two little school girls having a blast and joking around. Even when the cameras were off, they were a pair from the minute they got together.”

Light notes how rare that instant connection is on a set. “I’ve had it a few times,” she says. “I also had it when I did Ryan Murphy’s The Politician with Bette Midler. People ask, ‘Have you ever worked together before?’ Or, ‘Did you know each other well before?’ The answer to both Bette and Epatha is, no. And there’s no substitute for that.”

Epatha Merkerson as Joyce Harris, Judith Light as Irene Smothers in POKER FACE.

“I saw Epatha do a New York play called Come Back, Little Sheba and I was just really ungunned, in the best way I can describe, by her performance. I’ve known her work for forever, she’s iconic,” says Light, here on the right with S. Epatha Merkerson in “Time of the Monkey.”


Just how tight Irene and Joyce are begins to be revealed when they conspire to kill a man named Ben (Reed Birney) who has newly checked into the retirement home. The women recognize him, but viewers aren’t clued in from where. Then comes the near-perfect murder — each episode of Poker Face has one — which required Light’s character, who is paralyzed from the waist down, to scale the wall of the multi-story home to enter Ben’s upstairs room, stab him with a lethal injection, swap their heart monitor bracelets (because she was known for never charging hers), and then de-scale the wall and return to her friend through the bathroom window. All of this while wearing a sweeping forest green-printed dress to blend with the landscaping.

Light says they worked with the show’s medical consultant Gary Baisley, who would help direct Light during her physical scenes. “In the character, I’m in a wheelchair. There’s been an accident when we were radicals in the ‘60s where I’m shot in the lower spine,” Light explains, highlighting Baisely’s role on set. “He was there all the time. He was also one of our 1st A.D.s. We were making sure that everything we did was right and appropriate to be supportive of that community.”

Light performed a lot of her action scenes, which included being tethered to the wall for the early shots of the climb, as well as a physical fight toward the end of the episode between Light, Merkerson and Lyonne’s characters that involved punching, biting and a taser. “Gary would stop me and say, ‘You can’t move yourself like that. You have to re-do it. And when we go back, you’re going to have to re-do that as well.’ So, that was challenging. And it was great that we had Gary,’” she says.

McKee admits that he felt intimidated reading the script initially. But then he spoke to the stunt team and got a feel of what the actors wanted to do. For example, Light split the wall-scaling scene with her stunt double — something McKee says the Who’s the Boss? actress quickly regretted.

“Judith, honestly, she watched her stunt double get rigged up with a wire and crawl up the side of the building and then she was like, ‘I could have done that.’ She was so disappointed she didn’t get to do it all herself! She was just game for whatever we wanted her to do,” he says. Light adds, “The first portion with a lot of the close-ups and all of that stuff, the early climbing, that’s all me. And when it got a little bit more dangerous, they tethered her up.”

For Light, the last time she embodied such physicality in a role was when she danced and performed in 2019’s Transparent: Musicale Finale, the feature film ending to the Amazon series where she played the Pfefferman family matriarch for four seasons. Then, as she says, “this was my year of the physical stuff.” First, there was her recent role in another Murphy project, the American Horror Stories anthology, which called for a challenging night shoot in Malibu where she ran through mud and rain. And then came Poker Face.

As is later revealed in “Time of the Monkey,” Irene and Joyce were far more dangerous than some flower headband-wearing hippies. They were actually domestic terrorists who planned to blow up a model UN meeting of high schoolers. Ben, as it turns out, was their former cult leader Gabriel, who ended up cutting a deal with the FBI and turning in his followers in exchange for his freedom. Not until all of these years later does he finally find Irene and Joyce, in hopes of getting their forgiveness. Instead, they murder him in vengeance.

For anyone who has seen The Menu, the murder also plays out like a revenge act from Light and Birney’s fraught relationship in the Mark Mylod horror. “We spent almost three months together doing The Menu with this incredible, amazing group of people in Savanah, Georgia,” says Light. “Reed and I were friends before, and we got to know each other even better. So when he got to New York to start filming Poker Face, I said, ‘In this one I get to kill you! Oh, this is going to be so much fun.’ He’s just a dream to work with.”

Reed Birney as Ben Gabriel in POKER FACE

Reed Birney as Ben/Gabriel in “Time of the Monkey.”


When the women confess their true history to Charlie, the empathetic crime-solver is gutted. A Poker Face theme is Charlie seeking justice for the underdog and, in this case, she was the one who was duped. Light credits McKee, also a good friend of Johnson’s, for entrusting her and her co-stars to get it all right. “He just let us go. He gave us space and room and breath to really bring all of this to life,” she says.

“You never know when you’re reading the script. You’re thinking something is going to be on the funny side, and then it comes out more serious,” says McKee, recalling that confrontation between Charlie and the women. “Charlie realizes something may be rotten with these ladies and they may be up to no good and she confronts them about that, and that scene came off a lot heavier than I think any of us were expecting. We gave ourselves room to let it get emotional and show how deeply hurt that Charlie is that these two women are bad.”

He adds, “Charlie was holding them on a pedestal up until that point and to have your heroes fall apart in front of your eyes is, as anybody knows, a hard thing to take. I think Natasha just completely nailed that harrowing, emotional moment.”

For Charlie, her impressive detective skills catch the eye of Ben’s witness protection agent (Simon Helberg), who casually offers her a job with the bureau. Whether or not that will ever come to fruition, McKee has no idea, but he enjoys the thought: “I like the idea of Charlie ending up in the FBI after being this kind of scrub on the road.”

Charlie’s road trip on Poker Face will continue as the episodes go, but her time with Irene and Joyce is sure to linger. And what sticks with the director is Lyonne’s commitment as the show’s lead, something he witnessed during the final fight sequence, which they filmed in one day. “We had done 70 setups or something that day, working with two cameras. It went off without a hitch,” he says. “Natasha is very serious about the work. She’s about fully understanding every single little beat that’s taking place on screen and making sure that there’s a damn good reason for everything that’s taking place.”

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in POKER FACE

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, after hearing Irene and Joyce’s real story, in “Time of the Monkey.”

Phillip Caruso/Peacock

And for Light and Merkerson, it was their fearlessness. “That whole day [of the fight sequence] for 12 hours, I was just constantly checking with Judith,” says McKee. “Because she was crawling around on the floor and strangling and biting. And just doing all these really crazy physical things. She was down in the dirt all day long, just going for it. She must have been really worn out the next day. I would have.”

Another example is the scene at the zoo, when instead of visiting Melanie the famous monkey with the group, the pair slip away so Joyce can taser Irene, in order to mimic the heart attack Ben should be having, since the pair swapped heart monitor bracelets. Johnson had the idea to shoot Light’s reaction at a slower frame rate, so when it plays back, it looks sped up and “a little bit cartoonish in a really cool way,” he says.

“When you work with actors who have been doing this for a good stretch of time, it’s always so refreshing to work with someone who still really has that fire in her belly,” he explains of his leads. “Judith and Epatha both have done everything, but they come in with that same kind of enthusiasm that someone who is just starting out comes with. Because they really love what they do and they know it’s a privilege to do this stuff.”

Reflecting on her episode, Light pauses when discussing what they accomplished.

“When you think you can do something … and what it means to be asked to do that kind of physical work,” she says. “You can have your team step in and say, ‘No you can’t do that. You think you can fall off the bed, but we’re going to have somebody else do that.’ Or, they can say, ‘If you are going to do that, this is how we’re going to do it: We’re going to place mats and foam down, and we’re going to shoot at different angles.’”

She adds, “Particularly for women in our business, they don’t always ask us to do that stuff.”

Source link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *





Prince Harry & Meghan Markle Attend Ellen Degeneres Vow Renewal: Video –

Whoopi Goldberg Shows Kit Harington Her Game Of Thrones-Themed Toilet –